Penn is one of a small, but growing number of hospitals taking their advertising campaigns to Facebook, Google and other websites. Fewer than 150 of the nation's 6,000 hospitals use Google and Facebook to market services, estimates Rob Grant, executive vice president of eVariant, a Simsbury, Conn.-based hospital consulting firm.
He and other experts predict that the numbers will rise as more see the value of highly targeted campaigns that enable them to track results.
But as concerns mount about wasteful health spending, critics question an approach that is "about revenue generation, not about improving health," in the words of Elliott Fisher, director of the Center for Population Health at Dartmouth.
"It saddens me to see an academic medical center go down this road," said H. Gilbert Welch, an expert on the dangers of medical screening, also at Dartmouth. "People should have a healthy skepticism and recognize these ads for what they are: Efforts at persuasion . . . that are likely to be unbalanced."
Some health experts suggest that Facebook or Google users may also be unnerved to see ads for hospital services appear as they catch up with friends and family, because of information they shared or searched for.
"I don't want Facebook to know what essentially are my medical needs," said Gerard Anderson, director of Johns Hopkins' Center for Hospital Finance and Management.
Hospital executives say the strategy benefits patients, as well as providers.
"Some may see it as an intrusion of privacy, but others say it's about delivering content that is more relevant to me," said Chris Boyer, director of digital marketing and communications at Inova Health System, based in Falls Church, Va.
Last year, he said, Inova advertised weight loss programs on Facebook for three months at a cost of about $1,500. Nearly 300 people clicked its online ad and 30 people registered for a free weight-loss seminar. Seven of those ended up having weight loss surgery, which helped the hospital make a $20,700 profit on that surgery in the second quarter of 2011. The goal was not to channel people into surgery, he said, but to give them access to a full range of weight loss services.
Boyer said that Inova paid to place ads on the Facebook pages of users in the hospital's market area who were between the ages of 35 and 55. The hospital did not target people from their Facebook status updates. "We walk a fine line when we do this kind of advertising," he said.
For Inova, Google has been more effective for advertising than Facebook, Boyer said.
With Google, the hospital bid to get top placement for search terms such as "bariatric" or "weight loss," and when people from the hospital's market area searched those terms, an ad appeared beside their results. Inova paid a fee each time someone clicked on its ad. Google users can be targeted by zip code, city or state.
Both Google and Facebook customers can limit advertisers' use of their personal information by changing their privacy settings.
Penn, meanwhile, is expanding its social media presence since targeting its transplant ads at people 35 and older who "liked" a lung transplant advocacy group. The ads began running a few months after Temple University in Philadelphia temporarily shut its lung and heart transplant program. Temple, which has since resumed the program, declined to comment.
"In the past, most of our lung transplant patients have been referred to us from community-based physicians," said Sawyer, the marketing chief. "We now see that individuals are actively searching for options, and some are self-referring for evaluations.
Penn officials have now put together a dozen other digital marketing campaigns, promoting fertility services and proton therapy for prostate cancer, among other services.
"It is a more responsible use of a hospital's limited resources than using expensive mass media advertising," Sawyer said.
Phil Galewitz is a reporter with Kaiser Health News, which is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, and is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.